Guest editorial…Minority entrepreneurs speak truth to empower

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In this season of taking stock, minority entrepreneurs, advocates and concerned citizens must resolve to make some noise to ensure that minority business enterprises have a fair chance to compete for procurement opportunities funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), more commonly referred to as the stimulus package.

Pennsylvania is expected to receive $26 billion under ARRA, of which at least $6 billion will be spent by state agencies. Additionally, hundreds of millions of dollars will be disbursed by cities, counties and non-governmental agencies.

Philadelphia, for instance, was awarded more than $157 million in stimulus funds directly from federal agencies. The Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. and the Energy Coordinating Agency have received a combined $30 million for weatherization assistance. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has received $127 million for construction and upgrade projects.

With the limited exception of federally funded transportation projects, minority businesses have been shut out from ARRA projects. As state Rep. Ronald G. Waters, chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, recently observed: “While federal stimulus money will help Pennsylvania rebuild its infrastructure and create jobs, it’s imperative that women and minority business owners take advantage of this opportunity.”

Since September, the Enterprise Center and the Pennsylvania Minority Business Enterprise Center have spearheaded an initiative to promote inclusion in stimulus-funded projects. We have identified procurement opportunities and matched those opportunities with certified minority firms. We used a mix of traditional networking events—business-to-business forums—and social media to provide minority entrepreneurs with information and online resources to help them fish for opportunities for themselves.

And with so many funding streams, we organized workshops to help minority entrepreneurs navigate the maze of procurement processes.

Though we have empowered minority entrepreneurs with timely information, it is time to speak truth to power. And the truth is, minority business enterprises have been shoved aside. The state’s “10 percent aspirational goal” for small disadvantaged business inclusion on ARRA-funded projects is just that, an aspiration.

But we must aspire to more. We must demand more than “outreach” and “best efforts.”

We must demand measurable results. To achieve results, we need a plan.

In these tough economic times, competition for ARRA-funded contracts is fierce. But disadvantaged businesses cannot compete against prime contractors who are submitting low bids to weather the economic storm.

After a series of public hearings, the bipartisan House Select Committee on Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Inclusion, chaired by Rep. Jake Wheatley, in September issued its report. The report includes findings and recommendations (read: plan) by which to “help small businesses grow and keep Pennsylvania moving in the right direction.”

The committee recommended that all state agencies, boards, commissions, colleges and universities establish a Small Business Reserve to increase procurement opportunities for disadvantaged businesses. The set-aside is not race-based. Instead, it is based on the number of employees and whether the business is dominant in its field.

The plan calls for the Department of General Services (DGS), whose current head, James Creedon, is Pennsylvania’s stimulus czar, to “monitor, track, enforce and report” on disadvantaged business utilization to Appropriations Committee chairs in the House and Senate. It goes without saying that what gets measured gets done.

The bottom line: Minority entrepreneurs must seize the moment. ARRA’s transparency and accountability requirements provide an opening to end business as usual in Harrisburg, as well as in city and county procurement offices. It bears remembering that DGS alone spends $4 billion every year.

Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In speaking truth to empower, the Coalition to Empower Minority Business Enterprises can change the culture in procurement offices across the commonwealth. In doing so, minority entrepreneurs will be better positioned to grow their business, create sustainable jobs and contribute to the economic recovery of Pennsylvania.

Della Clark is president of The Enterprise Center, which provides access to capital, building capacity, business education and economic development opportunities to high-potential minority entrepreneurs. To join the call to action, send an e-mail to info@mbecoalition.com.

(Reprinted from the Philadelphia Tribune.)

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